Democratic values should be Israel’s red line

Politicians sometimes save the most important truths for a foreign audience. Sometimes those truths really need to be said at home.

On “Meet the Press” last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a particular point about the liberal values shared by the United States and his country. In characterizing those rioting in the Middle East against the United States, Netanyahu said, “There is a tinderbox of hatred here from a virulent strain of Islam that takes moderate Muslims and Arabs and attacks them first, but seeks to deprive all of us of the basic values that we have. They’re against human rights, they’re against the rights of women, they’re against freedom of religion, they’re against freedom of speech and freedom of expression. They’re against all the things that we value. They’re against tolerance. They’re against pluralism and they’re against freedom.”

As the New Israel Fund has fought for 34 years for civil rights, tolerance, pluralism, and women’s and minority rights in Israel, this crystal-clear statement of Israel’s values was quite welcome — particularly when Israel’s own democracy often seems to be increasingly at risk.

Members of the prime minister’s Likud Party and governing coalition have introduced more than 40 bills in the Knesset that would defund or penalize Israel’s human rights groups, constrict minority rights or weaken the independence of Israel’s media and judiciary. Despite High Court rulings, women continue to be excluded from everything from the airwaves (on the government-funded Orthodox radio station) to the front seats of public bus lines to ordinary commercial advertisements in Jerusalem. And there has been little tolerance from ultranationalists in the governing coalition of anyone who dares to question current government policies.

Even more worrisome is the upsurge in racist incitement and violence. Knesset members from Likud and other parties in the governing coalition have characterized asylum seekers from Africa in the most prejudicial terms, leading a summer rally against them that turned into a violent riot.

The attempted “lynching” of an Arab youth in Jerusalem last month and the firebombing in the territories of a car with a Palestinian family are only the most visible incidents in which minorities are threatened or attacked, or their property expropriated. No one has yet been convicted of any of the vigilante “price tag” attacks on mosques in Israel or the territories.

The Likud Party was founded in a historic tradition of steadfast commitment to the values of Western, liberal democracies. From Ze’ev Jabotinsky to Benny Begin, there have been leaders of the Israeli right whose dedication to democratic values cannot be questioned. And we are sure that Netanyahu’s experience living in the United States taught him that American Jews are ferociously dedicated to those values. Indeed, we are influential far beyond our numbers in supporting civil rights and pluralism organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and People for the American Way.

And, since most of us are Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or secular, we look at the rejection of those streams of Jewish life by Israel’s state-sponsored haredi Orthodox hierarchy with resentment and concern.

Israel’s still-functioning democracy can be an example to its neighbors, now struggling toward a better and more democratic future. It can guarantee and deliver on the promises of “full social and political equality for all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex” and “full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture” enshrined in the Proclamation of the State of Israel. It can equalize opportunity for those Israelis left out and do much to remedy the situation of the shrinking middle class — the people who filled the streets during last year’s social protest.

Most of all, Israel can preserve its relationship with the United States and with American Jews in particular by defending the shared values described by the prime minister. We believe in an Israel that fulfills the promise of its founders, both as a Jewish homeland and as a state that treats all of its citizens and residents decently, equally and with justice. We want to be proud of Israel’s commitment to human and civil rights and to freedom.

We ask that the prime minister speak — not in English to Americans but in Hebrew to his fellow Israelis — of the absolute necessity of retaining Israel’s status as a liberal and tolerant democracy.

An Israel that marginalizes minorities, stifles dissent and brooks no disagreement with government policy is not the Israel that most American Jews have signed up for. Nor is it the Israel envisioned by its founding fathers and mothers. American Jews well understand that government must protect the weak and the defenseless, and ensure equal opportunity for all. And we believe Israel can be the Jewish homeland and still, in protecting freedom of conscience, achieve the kind of separation between religion and state necessary for true democracy to flourish. Our belief in this vision of Israel is genuine and real and born out of the best Jewish and humanist values.

That is the real red line for us, and we ask the prime minister to ensure that Israel never, ever crosses it.

Daniel Sokatch is the president and CEO of the New Israel Fund.